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Short Trips: Life Science

Big Finish Short Fiction Anthology #7
Lawrence Conquest

Going by the various cover blurbs this anthology is going to examine the biological nature of life, but will it prove to be any different from the usual collection of aliens and monster stories? Let’s pull on the surgical gloves and open this collection up shall we?

First up – David Bailey’s ‘Syntax’ initially looks as though it’s going to be an enjoyable tale, with the 8th Doctor and Izzy (from the comic strips, True Believer) encountering a sentient pheromone language and some zombified natives on an alien planet. Thankfully this sentient language is sufficiently different from the one in Big Finish’s audio ‘…Ish’ to be worthwhile, but unfortunately the story falls to pieces by the end, as it descends into boring technobabble. Worse, Bailey’s 8th Doctor is awful – pompous, condescending and just plain unlikeable. His decision to come on all ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’-style high and mighty on the side of the Syntax also grates – the Doctor’s willing enough to condemn the planets population to a mindless life under the Syntax (“They’re happy”), but not his precious companion. A poor start.

John Seavey’s ‘Primitives’ continues the theme of exotic sentient life, when the 3rd Doctor and Sarah land on a world being surveyed by a mining company. With the benefit of brevity, some great dialogue for the 3rd Doctor and a lack of technobabble this simple but effective tale succeeds where the previous story failed.

‘The Northern Heights’ by Mark Stevens continues the high quality, with the 4th Doctor battling a Lovecraftian being from another dimension in the London Underground. A well-written tale, Stevens skilfully gives the impression of a broader scope than the minimal page count would suggest by use of excerpts from an ‘after the fact’ report on the incident, while the 2nd person narrative is suitably moody. I’m not entirely sure how this story fits into the theme of ‘life science’, but it’s a damn good tale nonetheless.

Ian Farrington’s ‘Observation’ is a very slight piece, with Turlough leaving the 5th Doctor on Earth for 6 months so he can observe the birth of humanity. The set-up to the mystery of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons evolution is well handled, but ultimately the resolution to the story is a little predictable. Reasonable.

Trevor Baxendale’s novels are mostly awful, but ‘Mortal Thoughts’ is a reasonable enough 6th Doctor and Mel story. It’s another variation on the old sentient robot chestnut, and it’s reasonably entertaining, if a little cheesy at the end. For the life of me though I don’t know why the robot in question would want the Doctor poking around in his head in the first place…

There’s more artificial life in Jonathan Morris’s ‘Lant Land’, which finds the 5th Doctor, Tegan and Turlough caught up in a computer simulation soap opera. Not bad, with a pleasantly weird set-up, but the explanation is ultimately too slight an idea to really excite.

‘A Star is Reborn’ by Richard Salter is (another) variation on Frankenstein in space. This 6th Doctor and Peri tale is readable enough, and the twist ending makes this just original enough to be worthwhile, but it’s ultimately a one-joke throwaway story, and comes off a poor second best to the similarly inspired Brain of Morbius.

The 7th Doctor and Chris Cwej come across some flying space crabs genetically altering humans in Kate Orman’s ‘The Southwell Park Mermaid’. A rather bizarre idea that ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere makes this a rather pointless exercise.

Steve Lyons’ ‘The Destroyers’ deals with the after-effects of the Doctor and Leela’s destruction of a sentient computer. The set-up is nicely done, but it ultimately turns out to be another one of those ‘person travels back in time to prevent a historical event and end up causing it’ stories – a rather tired and overused time travel story device (and we’ve already had a similar situation earlier in this collection with ‘Observation’). Average.

The 6th Doctor and Peri find themselves ‘with child’ in Matthew Griffiths’ ‘The Reproductive Cycle’. A clever extrapolation of TV series continuity which expertly examines the regular characters. Bold, brilliant stuff, and it p*sses all over The Ultimate Treasures use of a certain old companion.

Todd Green’s ‘Jonah’ finds the 8th Doctor dealing with some very contemporary cloning issues. Reasonable, but it’s such a current concern that it almost feels a bit mundane compared to the other stories in this collection. For me science fiction should take current ideas and technology and push them to the extremes to explore the possible ramifications on society, but with real-life stories of parents looking to artificially conceive offspring in order to obtain genetic material for another ill child being common newspaper currency, this story just doesn’t push the concept far enough to be anything other than predictable.

Gareth Wigmore’s ‘Scribbles in the Chalk’ has the 1st Doctor, Katerina and Steven trapped on the wrong side of a temporal anomaly amongst a race suffering from random shape-shifting. The plot is a bit far-fetched, and I’m still not sure why there was a time anomaly there in the first place, but this story contains some fantastic imagery.

In Alexander Leithe’s ‘The End’, the 8th Doctor – seemingly the post-destruction of Gallifrey EDA version – attempts to create a new society of time travellers to map out the future, only to meet his first incarnation at the end of the universe. As with a lot of stories in this collection it’s well written, and reads well – but ultimately doesn’t seem to amount to anything much. Not bad – but nothing spectacular either.

In Andy Campbell’s ‘The Age of Ambition’ a rather verbose Victoria relates a tale of the 2nd Doctor, Jamie and herself fighting zombies created by an acquaintance of her father. This is unfortunately the sort of story guaranteed to get me annoyed, as this complete waste of space consists of nothing but second-hand ideas (think Re-Animator for example) with not one shred of originality by the author. Misguided scientist re-animates the dead, zombie run amok, Doctor and companions kill them all – the end. We’ve seen all this before – so what’s the point of this story? It’s no good simply taking a stock genre situation and merely adding the Doctor and co to it – even the Hinchcliffe-era TV series added a few new spins on the stories they were ripping off. Campbell writes some suitable gruesome sub-Mark Lewis gore – but until he has anything original to say he’s wasting everyone’s time regurgitating stock material like this.

The more coarse Ace narrates the next tale, Lance Parkin’s ‘Echo’, which is frankly so slight (a 5-page story of Ace encountering a presence in the depths of the TARDIS) it’s difficult to work out what it’s trying to achieve. As with Parkin’s similar contribution to A Universe of Terrors (is this a sequel to that story, or a spin-off of one of Parkin’s novels?) there doesn’t seem to be any drama, conflict, ideas or point – it’s just there.

Finally Jim Mortimore’s ‘A Rose by Any Other Name’ has the 7th Doctor and Ace (I presume, sometimes the only clue you’re given to go on is a reference to a bomber jacket) encountering a sentient suit. A nice moody tale, though a little wilfully obscure in the plotting department, and while the sentient suit is a nice idea it’s uncomfortably close to the identical idea in a story called ‘Descendent’ by Iain M Banks (from ‘The State of the Art’). Coincidence or swipe? You decide.

So – what are the scores on the doors Miss Carole Anne Ford?

Standout Highlights: Primitives, The Northern Heights, The Reproductive Cycle.
Standout Duffers: Syntax, The Southwell Park Mermaid, The Age of Ambition, Echo.

The other 9 stories are all reasonable if unspectacular – one thing I did notice was that while the general standard of writing was high, a fair number of stories had intriguing set-ups that ultimately led to very average resolutions when it became time to actually reveal the plot.

As a whole Life Science is an average collection, and Big Finish have certainly produced both better and worse Short Trips. While about half the stories did actually deal with the nature of sentient life itself, many just seemed to be stories that featured exotic alien life – and being as this is Doctor Who that’s not particularly uncommon. Ultimately, as with many of the stories within, Life Science is readable but it doesn’t quite live up to its premise.